Miriam Bram heard about the Holocaust at home all her life. Three of her grandparents are survivors.
She learned the facts in high school, and visited the death camps last year in Poland.
This week, during her summer vacation, Bram’s Holocaust education continued — on the 15th floor of the U.S. Federal District Court in lower Manhattan.
Bram, 18, a sophomore at Stern College for Women, attended the denaturalization trial of Jack Reimer, a Ukrainian-born retiree accused of concealing his activities as an SS guard during World War II.
“It happened to us — they did it to our relatives,” Bram said, explaining why she spent her mornings listening to testimony about Nazi atrocities and mass killings. “He wanted to destroy the Jews. We wanted to show him he didn’t succeed — we’re here. I wanted to make that statement.”
A book of Psalms in her hands, her friend and fellow Stern-student Ahuva Weinberger at her side, Bram looked at the white-haired, 79-year-old defendant and thought of her forebears who died at the hands of the Nazis.
“It puts a face on” her previous Holocaust studies, she said. “I never saw a Nazi.”
A resident of Staten Island, she traveled by bus and train to the court each day, taking time away from her summer internship at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC).
Bram and Weinberger, a fellow JCRC intern, were among several dozen members of the Jewish community who nearly filled 10 rows of seats at the trial, the first-such held in Manhattan, which began on Monday. The group included observers from JCRC and the Anti-Defamation League, representatives of survivors’ groups, and many other survivors.
What they heard was an advanced colloquium on the Holocaust, with expert witnesses offering point-by-point, often graphic testimony about the Final Solution and how it was carried out. The methodical questioning of Edward Stutman, senior trial attorney of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, was a vivid contrast to the folksy manner of Reimer’s lawyer, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
The mood in the carpeted courtroom was calm, with none of the picketing outside or emotional outbursts inside that have characterized trials of accused Nazis in other cities.
During one break, Reimer stopped at a water fountain in a small hallway next to the two college students and other Jewish trial observers. No one said a word to him.
“When I looked at him, I felt disgusted,” Bram said. “I didn’t want to look at him.”
No temptation to yell?
“If I thought it would help,” she said, “I would yell.”
Reimer’s courtroom demeanor was also restrained. Sitting at a table with Clark, he showed no emotion during the testimony. Fluent in German and Russian, he quietly translated a handful of documents and whispered questions into his lawyer’s ear.
Bone-thin, Reimer was dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt buttoned at the collar, gray slacks and Nike Airs. When the air conditioning kicked in, he slipped on a blue-and-gray cardigan sweater.
“He put on the Mister Rogers sweater and sat down,” said Weinberger, 18, whose paternal great-grandfather’s family in Poland lost several members during the Shoah. “When I saw him, I saw him holding a gun,” she said. The government says Reimer participated in the liquidation of three Jewish ghettos in Poland, and in the killing of Jews at a mass grave near the SS training base close to Lublin, where he was stationed. “I pictured my relatives being exterminated.”
Weinberger, from Teaneck, N.J., said the trial taught her about the operations of Trawniki, the SS training base where Reimer, as a noncommissioned officer, trained new recruits.
Bram said the volume of documents cited in the government’s case was itself an education. “Seeing the quantity of data they have against him is compelling.”
She and Weinberger encouraged their friends to attend the trial. A few were to come later in the week. But most of the people in the spectator space were older than they by several decades.
Why so few young Jews — members of the so-called Second and Third Generation — at the trial?
“Camp,” Bram said. “They are working.” Most of her peers have summer jobs as camp counselors, she said.
“It’s a disappointment — I hoped the court would be packed with Jews,” she said, adding that her friends are “very interested” in her nightly reports on the proceedings.
Harriet Mandel, Israel and international affairs director at JCRC, said she “can’t account” for the overall low turnout of the Jewish community during the historic trial’s first week. Empty seats were visible during each court session.
JCRC sent a recent flyer to its member agencies about the trial.
“Many members of the Jewish community are away for the summer,” Mandel said. “It’s a reality.”
Bram, who with Weinberger attended the 1997 trial in Brooklyn Federal Court of Charles Price — convicted of inciting the crowd that killed Yankel Rosenbaum in the 1991 Crown Heights riots — came to the Reimer trial although her grandmother “isn’t too happy I’m coming.”
“My other grandparents are happy,” she said. Her parents work during the day. “Otherwise, they would come too.”
After a short vacation next week, the pair will be back in the courtroom for the final days, and the verdict of the Reimer trial.
“It’s a chance of a lifetime,” Bram said, “to see a trial, to see a Nazi, and to see, hopefully, a Nazi brought to justice.”